Posts Tagged ‘Rail Passengers Association’

RPA Fighting Amtrak Plans to Reduce Service

May 30, 2020

The Rail Passengers Association is launching a lobbying campaign to try to persuade Congress to approve the supplemental $1.475 billion in funding that Amtrak is seeking in fiscal year 2021 from Congress.

That money would be on top of the passenger carrier’s regular funding request for the FY2021.

The passenger advocacy group said that it will seek to prod Congress to approve the funding with statutory mandates that service continue to operate daily on routes where that is now the case.

A letter from Amtrak President William Flynn said that even with the supplemental appropriation all but one of Amtrak’s long-distance routes would be reduced to less than daily operation.

Without the supplemental funding, Flynn warned, all of the long-distance routes are “at risk,” which presumably means of being suspended or discontinued.

RPA is appealing to its members to contact members of Congress to demand daily service and to protect Amtrak’s workforce.

The carrier has said it expects to reduce its workforce by 20 percent.

Flynn’s letter has draw a sharp rebuke from Rep. Dan Lipinski, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads.

In a statement, Lipinski was particularly critical of Amtrak’s plans to cut its workforce.

The statement cited the $1 billion that Amtrak received from the CARES Act.

“It was my understanding that Amtrak did not plan to furlough any workers due to COVID-19,” Lipinski said.

RPA said Flynn’s letter left a number of unanswered questions including how Amtrak could restore service to pre-pandemic levels if one in five employees will be gone either through voluntary retirement or furlough.

Other unanswered questions are what level of less than daily service Amtrak envisions for its long-distance trains whether it would be every other day, five days a week or tri-weekly.

RPA is calling for Amtrak to explain how much the carrier expects to save with less than daily service, how much revenue would be lost and what threshold of ridership would trigger full restoration to daily service.

The rail passenger advocacy group said Congress should up the supplemental funding for Amtrak to at least $1.5 billion for a total of $3.54 billion in total funding on the condition that clear protections for passengers and workers imposed.

Amtrak Host Railroads Push Back on FRA OT Rule

May 21, 2020

Running a passenger train schedule between one station and another should seem like a straight forward process.

Take such factors as distance and maximum speed allowed over the length of the run to determine “pure running time.” Then factor in station dwell times. The result is a schedule.

In fact those are factors Amtrak has used to create its schedules.

But during a recent public hearing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration over its proposed rule mandating on-time performance standards for passenger trains, Amtrak’s host railroads argued that schedule making it more complicated than that.

The host railroads want the FRA to require rather than suggest that Amtrak and its host railroads conduct periodic negotiations over schedules.

As the host railroads see it, current Amtrak schedules are not realistic because they were set years if not decades ago and conditions have changed since then.

Norfolk Southern told the FRA that Amtrak schedules need to account for “operating and market conditions affecting the railroad, including infrastructure capacity, traffic volumes, traffic mix, and maintenance needs.”

NS contends that Amtrak is unwilling to adjust schedules in response to these factors.

The proposed FRA standards would define a train as on-time at any given station if it arrives within 15 minutes of its published schedule although that would be weighted by the level of use that station typically sees.

A recent analysis of the issue published on the website of Trains magazine laid out some of the various factors in the on-time rule making dilemma.

If Amtrak and its host railroads were forced to negotiate new schedules, the process would likely become protracted as each sought to advance its own underlying agendas.

For the host railroads that is likely to include lengthening schedules rather than contracting them.

Railroads have a financial incentive to demand longer schedules. Amtrak pays them incentives to operate trains on time. It penalizes host railroads by withholding those payments if trains are late.

Typically, schedules include “recovery time” to enable a late train to get within its schedule at some point.

Recovery time tends to be placed toward the end of a route. You can find it by calculating the scheduled running time from the terminal, say Chicago, and the next station on a route.

It is not unusual for the scheduled running time into Chicago from that station to be twice what it is for trains leaving Chicago.

However, in some instances, recovery time is built in around specified en route check points.

Another sticky issue involves routes with multiple host railroads. If a train arrives late onto the tracks of railroad B because of delays incurred while on the tracks of railroad A, railroad B doesn’t want to be penalized for that.

Yet Amtrak’s host railroads argue that will occur if the proposed FRA standard is adopted.

In their comments to the FRA, some host railroads were critical of Amtrak for refusing to show them certain information including passenger boarding information at individual stations.

That is important information, railroads say, because the built-in dwell time at any given station needs to take into account how many passengers it typically handles.

Because passenger counts at any given station are subject to change, host railroads contend that the dwell time at some stations may be outdated given the passenger traffic there and thus not “reasonably achievable.”

Trains found after reviewing the testimony and written statements of the parties that participated in the FRA hearings that Amtrak’s host railroads generally favor a single measure rather than multiple definitions of when a train is late, depending on the length of the route traveled.

Amtrak’s host railroads through their trade group, the Association of American Railroads, challenged complex on-time definitions in court in previous litigation over a section of a federal law mandating the setting of on-time performance standards for passenger trains.

The Rail Passengers Association in its statement to the FRA expressed the fear that Amtrak’s host railroads are playing a long game of seeking to engage in endless litigation and regulatory proceedings in an effort to forestall on-time standards that are not to their liking.

Rail passenger advocates argue that if the host railroads get their way Amtrak schedules would be reset to be so slow that fewer people would want to take the train.

Passenger advocates also contend that without a mechanism in place to penalize Amtrak’s host railroads for their failure to dispatch trains on time there will be no incentive for the hosts to ensure passenger trains adhere to their schedules.

The Trains analysis noted there was widespread criticism by host railroads and passenger train advocates alike over Amtrak’s refusal to share operating information with the public.

This includes Amtrak’s Customer Satisfaction Index. Amtrak argues that information collected to calculate that index is proprietary.

The FRA is accepting public comments on its proposed rule through June 1.

Whatever it decides probably isn’t going to make everyone happy and it could even leave all parties somewhat to greatly dissatisfied.

Everyone involved in this matter has their own agenda and it’s probably inevitable that those agendas will conflict.

Each party wants someone else to give up something that is valuable to them that they are not willing to surrender no matter what “compensation” they may get in return if indeed there is anything to be gained by giving in.

AAR Says Amtrak Schedules Are Unrealistic

May 10, 2020

Amtrak’s host railroads appear poised to argue that keeping its trains on time is difficult because the schedules are difficult to meet.

During a recent hearing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration, Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads indicated that nearly all Amtrak schedules are unrealistic and it would be a mistake to promulgate on-time standards based upon them.

The FRA is considering setting on-time standards that host railroads would be expected to follow in dispatching passenger trains.

It is yet another in a decade-long legal battle over on-time performance standards that have involved AAR challenging in court a law approved by Congress directing the setting of such standards.

“The freights’ strategy is clear: Get FRA to require Amtrak to lengthen schedules even more, making passenger rail so trip-time uncompetitive that passenger rail dies in the United States,” said Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association.

Mathews noted that several railroad executives spoke during the FRA hearings about hard hard it is to run a railroad and keep passenger trains on time.

Mathews also took issue with AAR’s assertion that Amtrak schedules have not been changed in decades, saying that many scheduled have been changed repeatedly.

“On time performance was much better before 2013 when Federal court action suspended performance metrics, leaving the freights with no consequences for running late trains,” Mathews said. “And it improved again when certain railroads had a bright public light put on them last year.”

He said that whether trains run on time is dependent upon consequences for host railroads when their dispatching decisions result in late trains.

The FRA is accepting public comment in the case through June 1.

Amtrak Stops Accepting Cash

March 28, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many effects, some of which have received little attention.

Among those has been Amtrak’s acceptance of a suggestion by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to business to limit the handling of cash, which it said can carry the virus.

The CDC has recommended that business promote tap and pay to limit the handling of cash.

The Rail Passengers Association said it has learned this week that Amtrak has begun refusing to take cash which the advocacy group said could leave those without credit cards with no options for paying for Amtrak services.

The RPA said it won’t fault Amtrak for adopting the policy, but said a workaround needs to be found.

“We at Rail Passengers right now don’t have an answer,” RPA CEO Jim Mathews  wrote on its website on Friday. “I’m raising the question as a challenge, however, that maybe all of us can come up with a solution.”

Budget Proposal Gets Little Reaction on Capitol Hill

February 15, 2020

A Trump administration proposal to more than halve Amtrak funding in federal fiscal year 2021 received a muted response on Capitol Hill.

The Rail Passengers Association wrote on its blog that congressional leaders in both parties are noting that there is a two-year budget agreement in effect and they expect that will guide the appropriations process.

“We’ve got the caps deal in place,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We negotiated it last year. It’s good for the second year, and we’ll comply with that.”

Nonetheless, RPA is trying to activate its members to contact Congress in opposition to the Amtrak funding cuts.

The administration’s budget proposal calls for slashing Amtrak funding from the $2 billion appropriated for FY2020, which ends on Sept. 30, to $936 million.

The budget proposal would reduce funding for the Northeast Corridor from $700 million to $325 million.

Funding of the national network would fall from $1.3 million to $611 million.

The budget document calls for the elimination of Amtrak’s long-distance passengers trains over the next five years.

Specifically, that would be accomplished through implementation of a new grant program whose objective is to encourage state and local governments to fund Amtrak service in corridors of 100 to 500 miles.

The budget document gave few details about the grant program other than it would only last through FY2015.

However, the administration made clear that it sees no future for long-distance trains.

“Amtrak trains inadequately serve many rural markets while not serving many growing metropolitan areas at all,” the budget document said. “The Administration believes that restructuring the Amtrak system can result in better service at a lower cost, by focusing trains on better-performing routes, while providing robust intercity bus service connections.”

RPA said the proposed $550 million in National Network “transformational grants” appears to be designed to help Amtrak cover the costs of multi-year labor agreements and contracts.

The rail passenger advocacy group argues that those agreements in tandem with the lost revenue from the eliminated trains and lost connections will make ending Amtrak’s long-distance network an expensive proposition.

Last year the Trump administration proposed a similar funding program that would have given states money to implement intercity bus services in lieu of passenger trains.

That idea went nowhere in Congress and the long-distance network survived intact.

The FY2021 budget proposal promised to provide details at an unspecified later date as part of the administration’s proposal for renewing the surface transportation act that expires on Sept. 30.

That document will, presumably, also provide a more complete picture of what corridor services Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation have in mind for funding with the federal transformation grants.

For more than a year Amtrak President Richard Anderson has talked up the concept of corridor services between urban centers, particularly in the South and West.

Anderson’s concept is to provide multiple daily frequencies on those routes.

In his public comments and congressional testimony, Anderson has said many cities served by long-distance routes are served poorly either through scheduling or lack of service frequency.

Amtrak executives have also in recent weeks visited state legislative transportation committee hearings to talk up the corridors concept.

An Amtrak public affairs manager spoke in Tennessee in favor of a new route between Nashville and Atlanta.

The same official also spoke in Kansas about an extension of the Heartland Flyer to the Sunflower State via Wichita.

In both instances, the Amtrak executive made clear that state and local governments will be expected to underwrite the operating losses of the routes.

During the Kansas hearing, the Amtrak executive referred to a yet to be enacted fund to help states fund new service.

The Trump administration budget proposal appears to be the framework for that fund.

Last year in response to questions raised during a congressional hearing Amtrak in a letter to senators declined to list the proposed corridors that it is studying, but indicated that it would continue to work with states that have expressed an interest in new Amtrak service.

Among the routes in states that have worked with Amtrak in recent years on service expansions are a route between Duluth, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities; an extension of Northeast Regional service to Bistol, Virginia; and a train between Chicago and the Twin Cities on the route of the Empire Builder.

There are no shortage of potential new Amtrak routes including some that have been discussed for years but failed to gain political traction.

That would include the 3C corridor in Ohio between Cleveland and Cincinnati via Columbus and Dayton.

Amtrak has never served that route, although it does provide service currently to Cleveland and Cincinnati with long-distance trains.

Columbus and Dayton lost Amtrak service on Oct. 1, 1979, with the discontinuance of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

If Congress does, indeed, follow the budget deal reached last year, it seems likely that Amtrak’s services in the next fiscal year will be the same as those now operating.

Budget proposals are more policy statements and aspirational statements than they are blueprints.

The Trump administration is not the first to call for elimination of Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains.

The real action is likely to be in the political wrangling over the surface transportation renewal bill and even action on that is not guaranteed despite the looming Sept. 30 expiration of the current FAST Act.

Congress might seek to extend the current FAST act through a continuing resolution just as it does the federal budget when it fails to reach agreement on a appropriations as the current fiscal year is coming to a close.

Another Glimpse Into the World of Richard Anderson

November 21, 2019

A Bloomberg News reporter has given another glimpse into the worldview of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

It’s a small examination yet a revealing one.

Anderson is not a sentimental man. For him everything is about business.

OK, so you probably already knew that, right?

Still, consider this comment from Anderson in response to a question about how his father, who worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, used to take the family on train trips to Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I didn’t come away with some huge love for trains, just like I don’t have some huge love for airplanes,” Anderson said. “They’re machines that you build a business around.”

Just machines? If you think about it that’s the response you might expect from a chief executive officer who spends his day looking at financial reports and making financial decisions.

It’s just that his predecessor as Amtrak president, Charles “Wick” Moorman, did have a passion for trains and that’s something that makes railroad enthusiasts feel better.

The Bloomberg portrait of Anderson doesn’t contain much more of his thinking that hasn’t been reported in other articles or he hasn’t said during occasional speeches and congressional testimony.

My key takeaway from the article was a better understanding of how Anderson got to be president and CEO of Amtrak and why.

I’ve long argued Anderson is not a rogue operator or a Trojan Horse who has surprised those who hired him.

Anderson may get most of the criticism but one of the lesser discussed elements of the many changes that have been made at Amtrak in the past two years is that Anderson was hired by a board of directors who would have spent considerable time with him before offering him the job.

They would have asked questions about his vision for Amtrak and his philosophy about transportation generally.

They knew what they were getting: A former airline CEO, yes, but also a former prosecutor.

Leonard described Anderson as having the cerebral demeanor of a senior college professor.

The reporter quoted a former boss, Texas prosecutor Bert Graham, as saying Anderson was one of his office’s best trial lawyers. “He had a way of seeing through bullshit,” Graham said.

Amtrak board members might have thought Anderson’s no nonsense approach was exactly what the passenger carrier needed.

He had the personality to do what previous Amtrak presidents had been unable or unwilling to do.

In that sense, the Amtrak board might have been like the parent of a spoiled child who hopes a teacher will do what the parent failed to do in imposing discipline.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, indirectly touched on that point when he observed that Anderson was hired to operate Amtrak like a profit-making company such as Delta Air Lines, where Anderson served as CEO between 2007 and 2016.

“He looked everybody in the eye and said, ‘OK, are you guys ready for this? We’re going to break some stuff.’ And everyone said, ‘Yes, this is what we want.’ And then he started breaking stuff. And people were like, ‘Wait, hold up. Stop! What?’ ”

And that is the crux of why Anderson is so unpopular with many passenger train advocates. He broke too many of their favorite dishes and was unapolegetic about it. He didn’t even pretend to regret it.

Anderson knows that, telling Leonard, “Most of the critics are the people who yearn for the halcyon days of long-distance transportation.”

Leonard wrote that Anderson started to lose his cool when asked if he was trying to kill Amtrak’s long-distance routes as many of his detractors have contended.

No, he answers, Amtrak will continue to operate those routes as Congress has directed and will spend $75 million next year refurbishing passenger cars assigned to long-distance service and spend another $40 million on new locomotives.

But Anderson also reiterated a point he’s made numerous times. He wants to break up some long-distance routes into shorter corridors and transform other long distance trains – he specifically mentioned the Empire Builder and California Zephyr – into experiential trains.

Anderson said he planned to ask Congress next year to authorize an “experiment” of breaking up some long-distance routes, citing the tri-weekly Sunset Limited as one Amtrak would like to address.

He knows that won’t play well with many. “Part of the problem is that the people that are the big supporters of long distance are all emotional about it,” Anderson said. “This is not an emotionally based decision. They should be reading our financials.”

Anderson can be confrontational and doesn’t mind, as the Bloomberg piece noted, throwing an elbow or two against a critic or competitor.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because at his level the competition can be cutthroat as companies and organizations look to further their own interests.

The article noted that in an effort to confront the host freight railroads that handle Amtrak trains in most of the country Amtrak instituted quarterly report cards that grade how well they dispatch Amtrak trains on time.

Confrontation may be a useful tactic but it also has a price.

Knox Ross, a member of the Southern Rail Commission, discussed that with reporter Leonard as they rode a two-hour tardy Crescent through Mississippi toward New Orleans.

Ross said he has talked with managers at Amtrak’s host railroads who hate those report cards.

Those host railroads may not be so keen about cooperating with Amtrak to implement Anderson’s vision of corridor service between urban centers that airlines no longer serve.

The SRC has been pushing for the creation of a corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Federal funding has been approved and the states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding. But Alabama thus far has balked.

And, Ross, said, CSX, which would host the trains, doesn’t want them.

No date has yet been announced for when the New Orleans-Mobile route will begin and Ross sees the obstacles to getting that corridor up and running as a preview of what Anderson and Amtrak will face if the passenger carrier seeks to create the type of corridor services it has talked about creating.

In the meantime, Anderson continues to look for ways to cut costs as he works toward his goal of making Amtrak reach the break-even point on its balance sheet from an operational standpoint as early as next year.

Then Amtrak can take the money it now spends underwriting operating losses and use it to buy new equipment and rebuild infrastructure.

If you want to read Leonard’s piece, you can find it here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-11-20/amtrak-ceo-has-no-love-lost-for-dining-cars-long-haul-routes

But be forewarned that he has bought into the conventional wisdom of how the Northeast Corridor is profitable and the long-distance routes and state-funded corridors are not.

The piece is also heavy on the nostalgia angle, particularly in regards to the recent changes in onboard dining services and the historic role of passenger trains in America.

Yet if you can adopt even a little bit of Anderson’s “just the facts mam” personality, you will see where he’s coming from and have a better understanding as to why he has been doing what he’s done.

Beware of the Rabbits

November 16, 2019

The Rail Passengers Association appears to have launched a public relations initiative to boost its image.

The rail passenger advocacy organization has filled my email inbox this week with daily messages filled with “facts” about its activities.

Last week the chairman of RPA, Peter J. LeCody, took the campaign to a railfan chat list, Trainorders.com.

In his initial post, which was titled, “Why you may be wrong about Rail Passengers Association,” LeCody said he joined the chat list in an effort to “help counter misinformation” about RPA.

He said he acted after some TO members contacted him about what they viewed as “misinformation and comments they considered to be bordering on malicious in many posts.”

LeCody said he wanted to begin a conversation to provide factual information, answer questions and “explain what a member organization can and can’t do and what it can reasonably be expected to do.”

The post had scarcely gone up before the rabbits began coming out of the bushes.

Rabbits are attention grabbing because of the way they dart to and fro. They may be interesting to watch but difficult to catch.

And they are incidental. They distract you from focusing on the important things.

Collegiate basketball coach Bob Knight would tell his players before a game that if they fight the rabbits the elephants are going to kill them.

One of the rabbits was a criticism of RPA for publishing last summer a series of postings on its website written by a summer intern who traveled the country on Amtrak and wrote about food. The intern has training in the culinary arts.

RPA has been sending interns out by rail in recent years and their reports are more entertainment than policy analysis even if RPA sees them as supporting its overall mission of promoting travel by rail.

Does it matter much in the scheme of things that RPA is posting travelogues? No, it doesn’t.

Another rabbit was a criticism of LeCody’s use of the term “third world” to describe Amtrak equipment.

There is a vast difference traveling on equipment that is wearing out, which pertains to Amtrak’s long distance trains, and the type of travel experience described in the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Marrakesh Express with references to animals riding trains with people.

Besides, one poster noted, some so-called third world countries offer better rail service than what Amtrak fields in some parts of the United States.

LeCody should pay heed to that criticism and be more careful in choosing his words.

So, sometimes rabbits can be useful so long you avoid chasing them.

LeCody had a lot to say in his post – maybe too much – but he never explained what exactly that people believe about RPA that is wrong.

RPA, which used to be known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers, has long been a target of criticism.

It’s one of the largest if not the largest grass roots organization devoted to promoting rail service. Being a target comes with the territory and sometimes that’s not fair.

Some of the criticism RPA endures is rooted in disagreements over strategies and tactics.

There are some who want RPA to take a more confrontational approach with Amtrak generally and its CEO Richard Anderson specifically.

If LeCody will use his TO membership to explain why RPA behaves as it does, he might be able to achieve something of value for his organization.

He may not change as many minds as he might wish, but he might be able to achieve a greater degree of understanding about why RPA behave as it does. With that might come more respect.

There is a difference between criticism and attacks that are mere irritants versus those that represent a threat to the well-being of your organization.

Having read the passenger board of Trainorder.com over the past several years I’m familiar with the free-for-all nature of the forum.

Sometimes you’ll find insightful observations or a good conversation; but not always.

I also wonder what RPA has to gain by creating a conversation on a railfan chat list.

The policy makers RPA is trying to influence probably don’t read railfan chat lists let alone take them seriously. If those policy makers are making borderline malicious attacks on RPA, that is a cause for concern.

But why worry about people who don’t have a vote on appropriations and legislation, don’t make transportation policy and don’t have the ear of those who do? Are your critics on TO likely to write to policy makers on your behalf?

RPA might be able to recruit a few people to its cause but just because people are interested in passenger trains doesn’t mean they are interested in devoting much, if any, of their time to advocacy activities.

LeCody would also do well to reconsider his communication strategies if he decides to continue posting on railfan chat lists.

All of what he said he wanted to achieve sounded good until he wrote that he would “not put up with anyone who can only whine about passenger rail issues without offering to pitch in and actually do something to help our association improve the rail travel experience for members and the public.”

He later wrote, “I enjoy constructive criticism. I won’t put up with ‘glass totally empty’ people who have nothing of value to add to a conversation.”

I grimaced when I read those words. Having an edge is not necessarily the best way to win over your doubters and critics.

I don’t fault RPA or any organization for wanting to improve its image with key constituents.

Yet it is not clear what about RPA’s image the organization believes needs improving. I have a hunch about what that might be, but that is for another column.

In the meantime watch out for the rabbits.

RPA Continues to Press Amtrak About Food Service

August 31, 2019

The Rail Passengers Association continues to press Amtrak to improve its dining service on eastern long-distance trains by laying out this week its list of changes it wants to see implemented.

RPA has been expressing concern about Amtrak’s apparent plans to expand its contemporary dining service program to all long-distance trains in October although it hasn’t formally announced those changes.

Contemporary dining was introduced in June 2018 aboard the Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-New York/Boston) and the Capitol Limited (Chicago-Washington).

Both trains lost their full-service dining cars in favor of a limited menu of offerings prepared off the train.

RPA said it has raised with Amtrak management several issues involving contemporary dining but thus far the carrier has only addressed one of them by adding a hot dining option.

“Since last year, we’ve been meeting informally with Amtrak leaders and executives to try to work out something better,” RPA wrote this week on its blog. “It appears Amtrak is simply barreling ahead with an offering that remains flawed and potentially threatens the attractiveness of the trains without substantively addressing the shortcomings we identified.”

Among the suggestions that RPA has made are more hot meal choices; more consideration for dietary needs such as kosher requirements, vegetarian, low-sodium/healthy, and common allergies; better presentation, which would eliminate the dinner-in-a-box concept; better provisioning so that diners should not run out of food in the first few hours of an overnight journey; and allowing coach passengers to buy meals in the diner.

Amtrak has suggested to RPA that new equipment is coming that would make it easier to address these concerns.

This includes new convection ovens in place of microwave ovens that will mean that more food could be cooked simultaneously and would have a better taste.

The carrier has also told the rail advocacy group that a new food-service vendor competition was supposed to improve the food choices while helping Amtrak meet its legal mandate to break-even on food and beverage.

RPA acknowledged that Amtrak is correct in saying that many passengers, particularly those who are new to Amtrak and are younger in age, want lighter fare and the ability to eat during other than fixed mealtimes.

Some have told RPA that they believe the food being offered by the contemporary dining program tastes better than what it replaced.

That led RPA to comment on its blog that it is unlikely that there will be wide agreement on individual food items because food is too personal.

“But we can agree that tossing largely cold, processed food wrapped in plastic into a box and handing it over in a plastic bag is not exactly a welcoming message to passengers,” RPA wrote. “Nor is the lack of place settings at dining-car tables, which is designed — subtly, of course — to discourage passengers from staying in the dining car with their boxed lunch.”

RPA said it has formally asked Amtrak to answer a number of specific questions about the planning food service changes that are in the works for implementation on Oct. 1.

The group wants to know if any aspects of the planned changes are open to refinement before they are launched in October.

It also asked about plans to address shortfalls in items aboard the trains, options for passengers with special diet needs, and the status of food-service equipment upgrades that are supposed to improve the taste and appearance of dining-car food.

Looking ahead, RPA has asked Amtrak about any changes that may be in the works for dining services aboard western long-distance trains.

Planned Dining Service Changes on Auto Train May be Predictor of Future of Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

July 22, 2019

The recent announcement by Amtrak of changes to on-board service aboard the Auto Train might be a blueprint for the “experiential” long-distance service that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has alluded to in public comments.

However, the upgrades that the carrier is making for sleeping car passengers on the Auto Train stand somewhat in stark contrast with what is happening with onboard service on other eastern long-distance trains.

In a news release, Amtrak said that starting in January Auto Train sleeping car passengers will receive complimentary wine with dinner as well as better linens and towels.

The release spoke of new dinner and breakfast menus, but it is not clear if that will involve food freshly prepared onboard or prepared off the train by a catering company.

The Auto Train announcement came about the same time that news broke that Amtrak plans to extend its “contemporary dining” program to its other eastern long-distance trains.

That program began aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018 and involves serving sleeping car passengers box meals in their rooms or in the dining car.

When “contemporary dining” began, Amtrak sought to sell it as an improvement in the sense that passengers received a complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals, would be able to eat when they wanted, and would have exclusive use of the dining car throughout their trip.

Initially, all of the sleeper class food aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore was served cold, but after a couple months one hot offering was added at dinner and breakfast.

The Auto Train announcement also referenced expanding sleeping car capacity during peak travel periods, but no such move was made for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Nor did Amtrak upgrade the linens and towels available for use by sleeping car passengers on those trains. Aside: those improved linens and towels may not be all that much. Amtrak is not about to become a high-end hotel.

Coach passengers aboard the Auto Train will be losing their complimentary dinner. Instead, Amtrak said it will expand the café car menu of meals, snacks and beverages. It also said it will have food truck vendors at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, that coach passengers can patronize.

That sounds like a 21st century version of the 19th century practice of passenger trains making meal stops at designated points.

Auto train coach passengers will receive a complimentary continental breakfast. That is more than coach passengers get on any other long-distance train.

Commenting on the Auto Train changes, the Rail Passengers Association noted that these changes are in line with the desire of Amtrak management to more clearly delineate travel classes. It also might be a scheme to delineate types of trains.

The Auto Train is unique among long-distance trains in not having intermediate stations. The clientele of the Auto Train is different in many ways from that of other long-distance trains and the more well-heeled among them might be the target audience Amtrak is seeking with the experiential trains.

I’ve long thought that Anderson might have in mind duplicating the Rocky Mountaineer or even VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, both of which attract a lot of affluent tour group travelers with disposable income to spend on experiences.

The Washington-Florida travel market has long been a strong one and is the only Amtrak long-distance market to have double daily service between endpoints even if those trains take different routes within North Carolina and South Carolina.

The implementation of “contemporary dining” on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited last year also represented a delineation between sleeper class and coach class in the sense that the latter are now limited to café car fare or bringing their own food with them aboard the train. But no food trucks.

In an analysis posted on its website last week, the RPA said Amtrak has hinted that the contemporary dining to be imposed on the Crescent and Silver Meteor, the only remaining eastern long-distance trains with full-service dining cars, will be different from that now available on the Capitol and Lake Shore. But RPA said it is not clear how or why it will be different.

“Meanwhile, problems with availability, choice and dietary restrictions have soured the perceptions of many repeat riders,” RPA wrote.

The rail passenger advocacy group acknowledged that Amtrak is trying to balance modern tastes and sensibilities within a long-distance ridership audience that includes large percentages of patrons who do not share those tastes and sensibilities.

RPA pointed out that one of its members wrote to say about “contemporary dining,” that “The food honestly is both better, tastier and more in line with how I eat when I am dieting like now and how my kids eat. Plus I like the dedicated lounge space in between meals.”

The latter comment reflects a facet of train travel that doesn’t get much attention.

If you are going to shell out the big bucks Amtrak demands for sleeper class, you want more than your own room and bed at night.

Amtrak argues that its surveys have found many passengers want less heavy meals and want to be able to eat when they choose rather that during fixed mealtimes.

Many passengers also don’t care for the community seating that has long been associated with eating in a railroad dining car. These passengers would rather not dine in the company of strangers.

Of course, RPA said, some passengers have found the food of “contemporary dining” to be terrible and even those who like the food have been put off by how it is presented.

That probably is an allusion to it coming in cardboard boxes and plastic containers, something that is being done because it is less costly and easier to manage.

In its analysis, the RPA said there are too few choices available with current “contemporary dining” fare, particularly with hot meal options.

“Members also tell us that kosher options are a problem, as are options for those with food allergies or sensitivities like gluten intolerance,” RPA wrote, “We’ve also heard from many of our members about entrees running out very early in the dining service.”

At the time that “contemporary dining” was launched, Amtrak said it would eventually allow coach passengers to purchase the meals made available to sleeper class passengers, but thus far that has not occurred.

Amtrak has said it is seeking to satisfy a Congressional mandate to cut its food and beverage deficit so the changes being made to the Auto Train and other eastern long-distance trains are being imposed with that in mind.

That means reducing the number of onboard employees involved in food and beverage service as well as trying to cut the cost of food and beverage acquisition.

The food trucks for coach passengers concept fits well into this framework because it shifts the risk onto an entrepreneur who probably is paying Amtrak a fee for the privilege of selling food trackside.

I wonder, by the way, what will happen when Amtrak begins getting complaints about food odors lingering in the air long after the food has been consumed.

Much of how Amtrak is framing these changes is akin to Michael Jackson’s fabled moonwalk in which he moves backwards while giving the illusion of moving forward.

Many railfans dislike “contemporary dining” but they are not necessarily representative of those who buy sleeper class tickets.

The sleeping customers are not necessarily looking for gourmet dining on wheels or trying to recreate the experience of traveling on the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, Twentieth Century Limited or the Capitol Limited during their heyday before Amtrak came along.

They want a good meal and friendly service that makes them feel that the hefty accommodation charge they paid was worth it.

Serving sleeper class passengers a complimentary alcoholic beverage and giving them exclusive use of a dining car turned lounge is fine, but can be negated by offering meals that too much resemble a school field trip box lunch.

RPA is correct in saying presentation is a problem here, but to get restaurant style presentation is labor intensive and reducing labor costs is one of Amtrak’s objectives.

Whatever shortcomings that “contemporary dining” may have, it could be worse.

Amtrak could borrow Southern Pacific’s playbook of providing food and beverage service from vending machines. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Senate Committee To Consider Amtrak Board Pick

July 21, 2019

A July 24 hearing has been set by the Senate Committee on Commerce to consider a nominee for a position on the Amtrak board of directors.

The Trump administration has nominated former Indiana Congress Todd Rokita to the board, a move that drew opposition from some rail passenger advocates due to his support of amendments would have ended funding for some Amtrak service had those amendments been adopted.

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews said his group opposes the Rokita nomination although he said the former congressman is likely to say the right things during his hearing.

The nomination of Rokita was announced last May.